The Guru is still with us whilst Sir Tel is brown bread (Photo by Darren Gerrish/Getty Images for David Collins Studio)

Guru of regurgitation

Time for self-styled “design guru” Stephen Bayley to move on from his erstwhile mentor, monstrous Sir Tel


This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

It says here that Stephen Bayley “was the person for whom the term Design Guru was coined” — it gets more toe curling — “something he accepts with what he likes to think of as self-deprecating irony”. 

Irony in this instance appears to mean having a ready-made defence for harmless archness. That’s the easy bit. Almost as easy as realising that Bayley himself thought up the epithet — which belongs to a sub-lexicon to make one cringe: it also includes foodie, fashionista, artisan, retail therapy (shopping, noun), source (shopping, verb), curate (entirely meaningless). 

Such pigeon-holing doesn’t help to explain what a Design Guru actually does. Search for Design Guru and you get anything but a job description. You get a “holistic approach to online placemaking … a new breed of digital agency … refactoring guru design patterns” and on and on. 

In Guruworld there exists a persistent delusion that copy-writing is writing, that a logo is a foot by Bernini

And the Guru himself is atypically reticent. He has written excellent academic monographs, books on taste, sex, aesthetics, Liverpool etc. He is fond of cute sub-titles: A Handbook for Practical Hedonism, Why Brands Matter, The Secret Meaning Of Things.

These are confected in collaboration with Roger Mavity and are presumably ventures into thickets of jargon and catchphrases that are more usually Malcolm Gladwell’s or Jordan Peterson’s territories.

His primary subject however is Terence Conran. Subject, since his death, of two books by the Guru who cannot quite muster the heartlessness to spit on his grave despite the manifold slights meted out to him by a man who was as monstrous as he was charming (supposedly: I never saw it myself). It was Conran who created the Design Guru even if he didn’t name him. He liked to think of the Guru as his creature. 

Too bad. The Guru is still with us whilst Sir Tel is brown bread (kneaded, of course, from flour from a mill at Saint Zob Le Gros which has been in continuous production since the last years of the ancien régime). 

And Sir Tel’s pitifully bully-boy lawyers no longer have a leg to stand on — the Guru can write what he likes about the man for whom he was ghost, gofer, quasi-helpmeet, fixer, doppelgänger, champion and punchbag, on and off. Oooh — their tiffs! Never having had, or wanted to have, a mentor, I don’t share the appetite for hero-worship and dependence.

Book A is Terence, a volume that could not be published whilst Conran was still alive. What a sensitive flower he turns out to have been. It is hardly an adulatory work but nor is it antagonistic. Still, it caused its subject to swallow a massive dose of umbrage. 

The rich, powerful and vain demand to be taken at their own estimate and will stamp on the least threat to their carefully constructed illusion or mask. This inventory of shops, design museum politics, restaurants, wives, borrowed ideas, betrayed friends and partners, tantrums and ignoble behaviour is again wrought in collaboration with Mavity, a bullet-point kind of guy who claims his first visit to Habitat was an epiphany. Really. 

The provenance of every cup, aerosol, cigar, phone, is acknowledged. Was the author sponsored?

Book B, The Art Of Living, also could not be published when Conran was still alive. It is a vigorous solo effort by the Guru. He (and any sane publisher) would not have got away with it. 

Conran could not have failed to have recognised himself in the character of the narrator Eustace Dunne and taken the author and publisher to the cleaners. It’s a hoot, a roman a cléf of the utmost tactlessness. “Any resemblance to actual persons or places is entirely coincidental” is a lie worthy of The Prime Shit. 

It is however more than a stitch-up of an often boorish, socially gauche tyrant. It puts a hefty boot (a Heschung of course) into the very milieu the Guru has created over 40 years. Proper names are not so much dropped as hurled. Not just the names of designers, chefs, typographers, but of their products, creations, fonts etc. 

On a single page (105) Conran/Dunne mentions Paolozzi; the “This Is Tomorrow” exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery; Alison and Peter Smithson; a Faro Basso Vespa; Buckingham Palace; Bernard and Laura Ashley; Pentonville Prison; Peter Jones; The Dorchester. 

The provenance or manufacturer of every cup, aerosol, cigar, phone, breezeblock, earring, sticking plaster is acknowledged. Was the author sponsored? 

That’s not an entirely facetious question for in the Guruworld there exists a persistent delusion that business is art, that copywriting is writing, that a logo is the peer of, say, a foot by Bernini.

Eustace Dunne is a more solid whole than the Conran of Terence. Of course he is, he is fictive. The Guru inhabits him, lends the creature his own characteristics. 

Quite where the League Against Appropriation will place the Guru is unclear for he has written about what he knows very well. Conran was fatter than the Guru, had three more wives, a greater fortune, bigger houses, faster cars. 

Now that he has in exceptionally late middle age discovered a new talent as a surefooted comic novelist the Guru should, next time out, flex his kulchur muscle and write about something of which he has no knowledge whatsoever. 

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